Sunday, April 17, 2011

8 Women (2002, 8 femmes)

Catherine Deneuve is a film icon.  She has worked with some of the best filmmakers of all time, past and present, and to see her alongside other great French actresses in 8 Women is a pleasure unto itself.  That the film is fun is an added bonus.

8 women are stranded at a snowed in mansion with a dead body in an upstairs bedroom.  The victim is Marcel, who we never see, Deneuve’s Gaby’s husband.  Their oldest daughter Suzon arrives home from college the day her father’s corpse is discovered.  She tries to piece together the last few hours of these very catty, very different women to solve the horrible murder of her father.  That the murderer might be someone she loves is a consolation of sorts.

There’s Mamy, her elderly grandma, played by Danielle Darrieux, an icon of French cinema going back to the 1930s (did I mention 8 Women was made in 2002?).  Mamy is wheelchair bound, and out of charity Marcel and Gaby had taken in her and Augustine, her unmarried, frumpish daughter, Gaby’s jealous sister.  Another French icon—Isabelle Huppert, muse to Claude Chabrol.  The sexy new maid, Louise, may have something to hide.  Emmanuelle Béart plays her.  Most innocent are Madame Chanel, the long time family cook and nanny to Suzon, and Catherine, Suzon’s kid sister.  Catherine is into mystery novels, something her Aunt Augustine doesn’t approve of.  She’s played by Ludiving Sagnier, a gifted young actress whose talents have been employed by Chabrol and Christophe Honoré.  This is an accomplished cast.

But wait—that’s only 7 women.  Marcel’s estranged sister Pierrette arrives looking for the brother she knows is dead.  Pierrette is played by the last of François Truffaut’s famous leading lady lovers, Fanny Ardant.  Perhaps because of Truffaut’s untimely death in 1984, Ardant never got the attention she deserved as an actress, but in Confidentially Yours, Truffaut’s final film, her work in that genre comedy stands up to Jeanne Moreau’s or Catherine Deneuve’s.  Deneuve was Truffaut’s lover in the late 70s, early 80s, and it is suggested that Truffaut had a breakdown when the actress left him.  Ardant was the one who restored his spirits, or so legend goes.  This gossip isn’t really relevant, but it’s in the spirit of 8 Women.  Director François Ozon must have understood the history he was bringing together by uniting Deneuve and Ardant on screen, especially in a dishy cat-fight of a picture.  This back story doesn’t interfere with the film.  But looking at the amazing cast that spans the whole history of French cinema—from poetic realism in the 30s to the 50s films of Max Ophuls, the New Wave and post-New Wave and beyond; 90’s cinema and today—I couldn’t help thinking of these facts.  8 Women is a fun film with style, brave, campy performances by its stars, and a great traditional mystery.  Getting lost in its actors is a complement.  A bad film with all these women would feel more gimmicky.

Gaby had kept her husband and his sister apart, or so she thought.  Nothing is what it seems in Ozon’s mystery musical.  That’s right, the film is a musical.  It’s kind of off-putting at first.  The opening shot, a wide pan along the grounds of the family mansion, looks intentionally phony.  The whole film looks like a 60s parody, down to the wigs and eye-popping color.  When Ludiving Sagnier sings the first number, in both her look and the choreography she reminded so much of Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap.  That must have been intentional.  The song, “Daddy, Daddy” You Ain’t with It”, sounds exactly like a song we would’ve got from a live action Disney film of the time.  What’s odd about the music is how Ozon stages it in context to the film.  There are 8 songs, and each one is a solo by the actresses.  They come off more as monologues; they don’t advance the story at all.  One could make the case that they hold up the picture, but not I.  The songs give us information into the respective character.  For example, when Isabelle Huppert sings, we learn her neurotic tendencies that often hurt her sister are in part to spare Gaby’s feelings.  Deneuve’s own song is very odd, and it leads to her and Ardant making out on the floor of the grand hall.  I never expected to see something like this in a movie.  What can I say?  It’s fun to look at.

The mystery in the film is old-fashioned fun.  There’s nothing original.  You have the self-appointed Poirot character, the nosy detective who forgets to cast a light into her own mysterious comings and goings, a wife who stands to gain an inheritance, jealous relatives and a sexy, dangerous sibling.  The hired help has run of the house so they’re suspect too.  The isolated mansion, guard dogs that don’t bark, a key to a locked door that is stolen, transference of guilt—everything that makes a great mystery work.  The musical is a bit odd in this context, but as a movie that loves movies, a movie lover with eat this up.  The style, the cast, the music, the genre mishmash, and the cinematic history and tribute that becomes 8 Women guarantees its admiration from people like me.  I will remain light on the story development.  In this kind of picture every twist is more fun to discover while watching.

In her office, Gaby has a portrait of herself from when she was young.  The painting is a breathtaking likeness of Deneuve.  Looking at those sharp cheekbones I was reminded of images of her from Belle de jour, the era where Deneuve was exceptionally beautiful.  I thought momentarily of the sadness of aging.  Deneuve has done so gracefully, and when she’s on the floor with Ardant, there is a moment when she looks EXACTLY like her younger self.

8 Women is Ozon’s most successful picture.  I’ve never thought too highly of him as a director, maybe because he is better known in the US than Honoré, my contemporary favorite.  His films are always either too stylized or boring.  I think the genre, the grandiosity of the material, and the cast allows Ozon to revel in his indulgences.  I saw the preview of his newest film, Potiche, also starring Catherine Deneuve.  I’m seeing it next week, but already I am pleased to see this same pictorial style at play in his newest film.

8 Women (2002)
(a.k.a. 8 femmes)
Director: Francois Ozon
Writers: Robert Thomas (play), Francois Ozon and Marina de Van
Stars: Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard
In French
Runtime: 111 minutes

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